National Vegetarian Week. Have you heard of it before? Until this year, I hadn’t. I’m not a vegetarian. I’m not a vegan. I would say I follow a ‘plant-based’ diet, but I would also say that I eat a lot of animal protein. Meat (mostly white, a little red), eggs, dairy, fish. All that jazz. And in the last few months, I’ve started to think about that, about where I get my protein from. I’m not sure how it started, but I do know that I began to feel maybe I was eating too much animal protein. I decided to try having one or two meat-free days a week. I had been reading a lot of food science for my blog, and it opened my eyes to something important – the scientific and environmental benefits of ‘plant-based diets.’ So I set a New Year’s Goal of 2 ‘meat-free’ days per week, but allowed myself to have eggs or fish on those days. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve stuck to it over the past few months.
So when I heard about National Vegetarian Week in the U.K., I figured – why not join in? So I went a step further, and for seven days, set myself the challenge of being a ‘veggie.’ I cut out all meat, fish, and changed the protein powder I usually use (whey) to the vegan blends I have at home. I didn’t cut out dairy (I continued to consume yoghurt, and cheese occasionally) or eggs as I wasn’t adopting a vegan diet.
It’s now Day SEVEN of the week as I write this, and I’m excited to share my experience from the week. I’m going to talk about FOUR things I’ve learnt from my vegetarian experiment under the following headings:
- Macros & NOT Tracking Them
- Protein & Satiety
- Creativity with Recipes & Meal Structure
- The Environmental Impact
I hope you’ll find it interesting to read, and maybe helpful if its something you had thought about trying out for yourself!
1. Macros & NOT Tracking Them
As you guys know, I DON’T track my food intake. I used My Fitness Pal last year for a couple of months, and subsequently deleted it from my phone after going to Wellfest in Dublin in September. I’ve written a blog post about this journey, which you can read here if you want! Although I no longer ‘track’ (i.e. I don’t calculate exactly how many grams of protein/carbohydrates/fats I eat in a day), since educating myself about the typical macro-nutrient content of foods I eat, I do have a vague idea of my daily intake. This is largely a sub-conscious thing now – for example, knowing that a chicken breast has roughly 25g of protein, or that an egg has 6g, etc. But in going vegetarian for a week, realistically I knew my intake would be a lot trickier to estimate, especially as my protein was going to come from sources like tofu, soy, beans, etc. And I decided to embrace that.
Overall, I’m guess-timating that my macro-nutrient intake for the week changed in the following way – INCREASED carbohydrates, REDUCED protein, and EQUAL fats. And actually, while I thought I might not, I felt great with this (likely small) change. As I’ve said in my blog post on protein, I believe that many of us (myself included at times!) focus too much on protein, and perhaps eat too much of it at the expense of frequently demonised ‘carbs.’ So what I’m saying is, for me as someone who no longer ‘tracks macros’ but is still aware of food content and labels, it was refreshing to jump out of my comfort zone for a week!
2. Protein & Satiety
The big question – would I be full after meals?! This was my main…is fear the wrong word? I think it is. Maybe mild worry is better. Even at that worry sounds silly – its not like I was going to go hungry this week. I guess you could say I was really curious as to how satiety, particularly at lunchtime, would differ (or not) compared to when I consume animal protein, be it chicken, turkey or tuna (my usual sources for work lunches). I made a gorgeous Black Bean and Lentil Bolognaise with Courgetti for work lunches, using a brilliant recipe from one of my favourite Instagrammers/food bloggers, Healthy Living James. Both beans and lentils are great sources of plant protein and fibre, as well as carbohydrate, so I figured this would be a pretty filling choice.
And guess what? NO DIFFERENCE. Genuinely. I found I was full up until 4ish hours later, which is standard for me. Much of my working day involves clocking up a lot of steps going from ward to ward, so I find I use up what I eat pretty quickly. But really, I didn’t notice any change there. If anything, I found that I was more COMFORTABLY full. That’s hard to explain. I guess you could say I felt maybe a little more energised in the afternoon, and my theory there is that maybe I was OVER-EATING animal protein at lunch time. Maybe I didn’t NEED to be adding the tuna/chicken/etc to an already nourishing meal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I was stuffing my face before this week – but possibly I was only adding extra protein (e.g. to a bean chilli, or chickpea curry, for example) for the sake of it, thinking I needed it. But maybe, I actually DON’T need as much as I thought I did.
3. Creativity with Recipes & Meal Structure
I’m not afraid to say that I am guilty of structuring meals around the protein source I’m planning to have. As you guys know, when I’m making a dinner or lunch in a hurry, I usually I start by picking the protein, then the carbohydrate and fat source, add a whole load of veggies and spices, and there you go, that’s an easy balanced meal right there. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
But coming up to this week I did feel that I had hit a bit of a recipe rut. In fairness, I work long hours a lot of the time, especially on call, so when I get home, often I’m tired but still want a healthy meal. So reverting to that structure is both a comfort AND nourishing. However, I felt that this week got me seriously excited about trying new recipes, and also forced to change my thinking around that meal structure. We need ALL of our macro-nutrients, and those micro-nutrients too of course! So instead of starting with ‘Where will my protein come from in this dish?’, I planned meals by what flavours I felt like, as well as jotting down some vegetarian recipes I had seen on Instagram/blogs that I wanted to try. And that guys, was SO refreshing.
4. The Environmental Impact
Now, don’t worry. I’m not going all ‘eco-warrior’ here. Nor am I discounting the fact that animal cruelty and environmental harm are the main reasons many follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Because whatever your own personal opinion is, you can’t deny that the animal protein industry has an massive impact on the environment. Even if you haven’t read into this yourself, you’ll definitely have seen a headline about it at some point in your life. Personally, I decided to use this week to open my mind and educate myself a little on the real facts about these topics. I am currently reading ‘The Diet Myth’ by Tim Spector, which is absolutely fascinating, and I’ll happily share my thoughts on it when I finish it soon. I watched a few TED talks on YouTube about the science behind the benefits of a plant-based diet, vegetarianism, and veganism. I listened to speakers talk about adopting these diets full-time, part-time, you name it, from scientists to doctors to vegan body-builders. I’ve also watched the Netflix documentaries Cowspiracy, Food Matters and Food Choices, and found them eye-opening, if a little scare-mongering in some parts.
And you know what? This week did change my thinking. I had been guilty of considering the effect of eating animal protein as abstract, as something detached from me. After all, we evolved to hunt and eat meat right? Well, we did, actually. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the conditions that these animals we process for our consumption live in, in many cases. In addition to that, processing and eating animal protein in the volumes that we do has an undeniably damaging effect on our environment – for example, the use of exponentially greater amounts of water compared to processing plants for consumption.
I’ll stop there. I’m not educated enough on these issues yet to say any more about them. But I would definitely recommend everyone watch those documentaries I’ve mentioned, or just Google some TED Talks – they do open your eyes to these issues.
SO – Am I Converted?
In short, no. I will continue to eat meat and fish, because I enjoy these foods, and hands up, enjoy them too much to give them up. I hope that doesn’t sound awful, but that’s me being honest. As well that, there ARE many health benefits to eating meat and fish – they’re great sources of protein, healthy fats in the case of fish, and bio-available iron in the case of meat.
However, consuming them in the quantities that we do comes at a cost, to their well-being and that of our environment. As far as our personal well-being goes, there’s undoubtable benefits to being ‘plant-based’, and I will continue to be so. BUT I will be changing the following – I am going to try to spend half my week as a ‘veggie’, and the other half as I was before. I won’t be strict on what days are which, but I think that ANY difference, however small, that we can make to reduce animal cruelty and environmental harm from eating animal protein, is worthwhile. THIS TED Talk by Graham Hill explains my thought process here better than I can, and was a talk I found really inspiring.
So that’s it guys! I hope you enjoyed this post. I absolutely loved my Vegetarian Week, and I’m excited to take this experience forward as I’ve described above. I would love your feedback on this – on this post, or your own experience, or any thoughts at all! Leave a comment here or message me on Instagram (@theirishbalance)! And if you want to see any of my meals from the week, I posted pretty much all of the them throughout the week on my Instagram – message me if you’re curious for a recipe or the like!
Ciara 🙂 x